October 2013 Review: Paw Prints in the Moonlight, by Denis O’Connor

~by Michele Gregoire

Paw Prints in the Moonlight carries the descriptive sub-title, ‘The Heartwarming True Story of One Man and His Cat,’ and it is truly a most heartwarming story. Denis O’Connor made a promise to his beloved cat Toby Jug that he would write a book about him one day, and twenty-six years after Toby died he finally was able to complete it and have the story published for the first time. O’Connor had such a deep and loving relationship with his cat Toby Jug that it took him decades to be able to approach the writing of his story, it had such powerful emotional impact on him. Paw Prints in the Moonlight journeys through Toby’s first year of life with details of many experiences. It begins on a freezing January night when the author hears a terrifying scream and goes to investigate, finding a grey cat caught in a horrible leg trap. He manages to free her but she takes off even with the severe injury before he can rescue her. Worried greatly for her he follows her bloody paw prints and eventually finds her in an old abandoned barn hidden away with two tiny skinny kittens, so he naturally rescued all of them and took all three straight away to an emergency veterinary clinic. Unfortunately the mother and one kitten were beyond saving by then, and the vet wanted to put the little black and white kitten down as well thinking he couldn’t possibly survive. But O’Connor just could not leave that kitten to die. So he took him home and there began his mothering of this fragile little being that became his ‘child.’ Solving the problem of keeping him alive was the first challenge but against all odds he managed to feed and nurture the tiny little creature through his first weeks and the kitten survived. As he grew, O’Connor chronicled in considerable detail Toby Jugs’ first year of life in this precious little book.

The book is divided into four main sections titled for each season in succession beginning with “Winter: The Rescue,” which is when Toby was born and rescued from a sure death. The opening of the story in the first chapter is a bit painful to read as O’Connor describes in vivid detail his finding of the injured cat and her kittens and his attempts to save them. While the writing is not overly emotional in tone, the experiences themselves are often quite heart wrenching and the author’s emotions are clearly expressed, bringing the reader into the same depth of feeling as O’Connor. This is the power of a memoir. The following chapters – Spring, Summer, and Autumn – detail a number of scary experiences that many a cat owner has shared, such as a cat who is let outdoors not coming home at night and being gone for a couple of days, or being scared up into a tree and not coming back down at the owner’s urging. As well, he tells of the especially endearing habit of Toby jumping up onto his shoulders and staying there for periods of time, and his wanting to be held and loved. Finally, the fifth chapter is short – “Saying Good-bye” – and tells of Toby Jug’s passing at the age of 12, much sooner than O’Connor ever expected, from a brain tumor. Paw Prints in the Moonlight is accompanied with several illustrations in two sections of plates that, as the author indicates in his part of the dedication to the artist Richard Morris, “his insightful and vivid interpretations of the text bring the story alive.”

At many points throughout the book the author comments about how sentient animals are and that we really do not know the depth of their understanding and thought. Because he nurtured and raised Toby, the cat truly imprinted on him, and O’Connor always knew he was his ‘mother.’ One of the first signs of that reality was in his naming of the kitten. In order to keep him safe during the day and night when he was at his tiniest size the author found a jug to keep him in that he could not crawl or jump out of, and it was called a Toby jug so that is how the kitten got his name. The author described a number of other problem-solving scenarios throughout the first year, for example finding a collar, and later a harness, for Toby Jug so he could go outside safely before he was full grown. Another enlightening side story is the time he took Toby Jug, who travelled with him very frequently, on his rounds of student teacher observations at rural schools. But perhaps the most interesting story line was his attempt to find out where Toby’s mother came from after the vet had described him as a Black and White Maine Coon breed. He did research and found a woman in a nearby town who was a cat breeder and it turns out that the mother of Toby who O’Connor rescued from the trap and tried to save had belonged to this woman – the cat’s name was Bonny. She had escaped from the car (she was not in her carrier) when the door was opened at the same time that several jets flew overhead loudly and scared the cat so that she bolted out of the car and quickly away. They never found her although they searched diligently for days, and that was a deep sadness for the woman. She was relieved to learn of Bonny’s kitten that survived, though still felt hurt at the death of the mother cat. Later in the book the author managed to find the sire (father) of Toby Jug too, in such a serendipitous manner that it seems almost like fiction in that it would be a rare thing to make discoveries of both parents for a foundling kitten. This is a particularly sweet resolution in the tale.

The setting is Northumberland, England but the story is timeless. Throughout O’Connor’s writing are passages that show his contemplative sense of spirituality. Such musings as this appreciation of the beauty of nature when returning to the campsite at the end of the day are illustrative. “I felt as if I were in another world, so enriching were the sensations of being at one with the landscape and the heavens above. Mesmerized by the view I could only stare. Fynn, of her own accord, came to a halt and stood motionless. Toby Jug stopped gambolling and settled down in the grass to be part of it, too. I gazed in awe at the scenic feast around us. No sound disturbed the perfect stillness. Man, horse, and cat were enchanted by a vision of nature, which was primeval in essence. We remained for a long while, captivated by its splendor.”

The author was a university professor and psychologist who retired after a full career and only then was able to write this story. He had been a solitary person who lived alone in a city apartment focused on his work and profession who decided to buy a place in the country and that’s when he finally attained his own ‘family.’ Toby Jug led him to realize how very important it is to have someone to love and care for, and his promise to write and publish the story of his life was “to preserve the uniqueness of our experience if only to relieve my own pain and sadness at his loss. He was gone from me now but I would never forget him.” So profound was his loss that O’Connor sold his country home five months after Toby’s death because he “couldn’t go on living there with the heartache of his loss. I moved far away so that I could begin a new life.” A compelling footnote is in the last paragraphs of the book, some four years after Toby’s death when a psychic who shared a television program on which the author also consulted gave him what is the grand finale of his memoir. “She said: ‘I am tired out with my efforts this evening but I just had to tell you what I’ve seen because it might be an important message for you. When you walked over to the bar just now I was aware of a spirit animal following you. Did you once have a black-and-white cat that you cared for very much? The initials T and J come to mind. Does that have any meaning for you?’ Choking back long-forgotten emotions, I was quite unable to speak. I simply nodded. ‘Well,’ she said, smiling at the look on my face, ‘he’s sitting on your shoulder right now!’ ”

Take-aways from this reading are many, but the most significant is that the connection we make with all of God’s creatures is where we find love in its truest essence, and often the relationship with our pets opens the door and nurtures our ability to fully love others. This is the second of the two great commandments and it is the most important guide for our behavior. Memoirs such as Paw Prints in the Moonlight are potent reminders that when we open our hearts to love our lives are fulfilled. May God richly bless Denis O’Connor for sharing his story of a very deep and abiding love with us!

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Dr. Michele Gregoire has been Chair of the Education Department at Flagler College since 2004 and a member of the faculty since 1988. She came to Flagler College from Georgia College in Milledgeville where she had been Director of Music Therapy for four years and prior to that she spent one year in the same capacity at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. Dr. Gregoire earned her bachelor’s degree in Music Therapy at Florida State University, her master’s degree in Music at California State University at Long Beach, and her doctoral degree in Special Education at the University of Florida. She has conducted research and published articles related to music therapy and special music education, consistently maintains a strong record of professional conference presentations, and her current interests are historical research in music education, special education, and music therapy.

Dr. Gregoire has been involved in several professional organizations throughout her career, and has served in leadership capacities in most of them. She worked for ten years as a clinical music therapist and director of internship, specializing in developmental disabilities, at the beginning of her career and continues to provide consultation in both music therapy and special education to individuals and organizations.

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